If you want to see the culture wars at their most extreme, enter the museum world.
As the cultural historian Michael Kammen demonstrated 15 years ago in Visual Shock, his history of art controversies, museums and exhibitions have long been flashpoints in the ongoing struggle over cultural values, civic and national identity, and the ways that the past is commemorated.
Yet even by historical standards, today’s kulturkampf is especially intense.
Sacramento’s Crocker Museum’s website states unequivocally that “museums are the legacy of Western colonialism, serving as the products of straight, able-bodied, white, male privilege,”
Says the Art Institute of Chicago: “Museums like ours have long centered certain stories while marginalizing and suppressing others…. Firmly rooted in Eurocentric tradition, the founding objectives of our institutional history did not consider gender, ethnic, and racial equity.”
Meanwhile, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s leadership announced that the Met must “aspire to be an agent of change.” To that end, the museum mandated “anti-racism training for all staff, volunteers, and Trustees”; committed “to a program of hiring Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) candidates to Department Head and senior leadership roles”; and promised “a program of exhibitions, events, and publications that addresses complex and unfamiliar narratives, cross-cultural perspectives, and fosters a more diverse and expanded canon of art history.”
Not surprisingly, a backlash ensued. Conservative polemicist Heather MacDonald accused both the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of redefining their primary purpose as antiracism and abandoning their “core mission of preserving history’s treasures and instructing future generations.”
She accused the Met of valuing “racial consciousness-raising over scholarship and historical accuracy”; of interpreting paintings and sculpture on identity rather than artistic or historical grounds; and building exhibitions like its 2021 “The African Origin of Civilization” around “discredited theories” and “doctored quotes.”
On one side of the ongoing culture war are those who cast museums as instruments of exclusion and art works and other museum artifacts as masks for power and privilege that “actively sought to silence other artists and traditions out of a racist, colonialist impulse.” On the other side are those who consider museums guardians of civilization, sanctuaries for aesthetic contemplation, and preserves for artistic and scholarly expertise.
For museums, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Prior to the pandemic, there was an unprecedented museum boom. More people attended more museums than ever before. Today, there are more than 17,500 museums in the United States touching upon virtually every subject imaginable, from art to ice cream, from natural history to sex.
But museums also face serious challenges from without and within. There is a financial challenge, as the cost of maintaining museums climbs while revenue stagnates. No longer can museums rely on the free or low-wage labor of volunteers or the scions of the wealthy.
There is also an audience challenge: How to attract a much more diverse audience and ensure that these institutions better represent the communities they serve.
Then there is a political challenge. Whereas the left at times dismisses museums as bastions of elitism, relics of colonialism, and representations of Eurocentrism, the right sees activist museums perpetrating attacks on traditional values.
But perhaps the most serious challenge is a lack of clarity about what museums are supposed to do: To preserve, enlighten, educate, uplift, engage, stimulate, provoke, or simply elevate people above the mundane?
Of all the courses that I’ve taught recently, by far the most exhilarating was a class on the history, politics, and future of museums. Over the course of a semester, we examined:
- How the mission, functions, guiding philosophies, collection policies, interpretation and exhibition of objects, and museum-going experience have shifted over time.
- The varieties of museum types, including not only art museums, but history museums, natural history and natural science, and science and technology museums, as well as open-air museums, for-profit museums, and unconventional museums that address such topics as fashion, food, and music.
- Controversies that have roiled the museum world and became cultural touchstones, including the battles over “Harlem on My Mind” (1969), “Drug Scene in New York” (1971), “Piss Christ” (1989), “Science and American Life” (1994), “Sigmund Freud: Culture and Conflict” (1995), “Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation” (1995), “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II” (1995), “Scaffold” (2017), and “Philip Guston Now” (2020).
- The challenges that museums face in terms of private and public funding, artifacts taken through war, colonial conquest, or duress, issues involving fraud and forgery, and whether museums should turn down offers of money that some consider tainted.
- The impact of immersive and interactive digital technologies on the museum-going experience.
Over the course of the semester, each student had to design a museum exhibition, outline the steps for its implementation, and make a compelling case for the exhibit’s importance.
The course’s secret sauce? Almost all the students longed to become museum professionals: administrators, archivists, conservators, curators exhibit designers, museum educators, and provenance researchers, among others.
Their pre-professional interests were anything but narrowly vocational. These students were as interested in the ethics of acquisition and display, in forgeries, fakes and reproductions, and in reparations and repatriation as in building design, exhibition layout, display techniques, labeling, and experience creation.
I’ve been fortunate, over the course of my professional career, to work with a wide range of museums, including the National Museum of American History, the New Jersey Historical Society, the Minnesota Historical Center, and especially the New-York Historical Society, including on its Slavery in New York exhibit, DiMenna Children’s History Museum, and 17-minute-long orientation film.
I’ve found nothing more thrilling than participating in the process of creating a museum exhibition. It’s truly a collaborative process, drawing upon content specialists, community representatives, professional designers, donors, partner institutions, and others. It really does take a village to engage in an iterative design and development process that involves brainstorming, planning, and convening focus groups, not to mention fundraising and marketing.
But designing and developing a museum exhibition is also a white knuckle, nerve-wracking experience.
Unlike the classroom, which is a black box, museum exhibits are inescapably public. Everyone — critics, patrons, community groups, and visitors alike — has a right to complain, disparage, and condemn. Whether or not the public acquires more of its artistic, anthropological, historical, or scientific knowledge from museums than from books or classrooms or television documentaries, there can be no doubt that museum exhibitions, as public embodiments of a particular historical interpretations or of the artistic canon or of scientific development, are cultural minefields.
Sensitivities are acute; emotions are raw. An omission, a misstatement, a slanted interpretation, even the choice of subject matter can elicit ire, irritation, and indignation. However ephemeral or short-lived an exhibition might be, it can become drive controversy and provoke a hullabaloo.
In other words, museums offer an ideal lens for studying the history of taste, the collection building process, museums’ social and ideological functions, and much more.
Let me provide some take-aways from teaching about museums, past, present, and future:
1. We need to offer more career-connected courses in the humanities.
Students are far more likely to be engaged in subjects that connect to a future outcome. Such courses offer windows into the post-graduation job market and allow students to assess whether this is the right field for them.
2. Dare to reach outside your discipline.
I could certainly have devoted an entire semester to the history of museums, but that would have been a gross error. Insofar as my students were interested in history, it is because it offered a window into change over time – in aesthetic standards, definitions of the artistic canon, museum’s physical design and layout, museum ethics, museum subject matter, and a host of other topics. Don’t hesitate to speak to your students’ interests and concerns.
3. Integrate project-based assessment into your class.
In my own course, I wanted to see whether students are able to draw upon the history, concepts, and skills that they learned in order to design their own museum exhibit. Project-based learning has the great advantage of allowing a faculty member to accurately assess whether students can practically apply what they learned to an authentic, real-world task.
4. Bring practitioners into your class.
One of the advantages of a hybrid environment is that one can invite practicing professionals into our classes without requiring significant expenditures on travel and to compensate for lost work time. Practitioners can, of course, offer realistic, hands-on insights that few full-time academics can provide.
5. Teach the controversies.
Gerald Graff certainly has it right: Teaching the conflicts is indeed one of the best ways to revitalize humanistic education. This is especially true in museums’ case, which serve as a contemporary battleground over issues that range from provenance, acquisition, and ownership to inclusion and exclusion, proper modes of contextualization and interpretation, cultural influence and appropriation, material representation, and what it means to be a civic space.
6. Remember: The study of history shouldn’t preclude glimpses of the future.
The history of museums is unfinished. Right now, new kinds of museums – commercial, digital, identity focused, among others – are emerging. While we can only speculate about what the future will bring, it’s clear that silent contemplation is increasingly giving way to dialogue, interactivity, and an emphasis on immersive experiences. More and more, audiences crave novelty and technology-enhancements. It is not taboo to look forward even as we gaze backward. After all, you can’t drive ahead staring solely at the rearview mirror.
Whether or not you consider art museums vestiges of a colonial, imperialist, elitist, or patriarchal, white supremacist past, natural history museums as inherently racist and speciesist, science museums as paeans to progress and human domination of the physical environment, and history museums as monuments to patriotism and nationalism, or nostalgia-laden reminders of a world that never was, museums have, for better or worse, replaced cathedrals and churches, capitols and court houses, and even sports arenas as our most important civic structures and communal spaces.
In fact, substantially more Americans visit museums than attend professional sporting events.
If we want to offer our students a more integrated humanistic perspective that provides a glimpse into a host of possible careers, we could do worse than teach about museums. I can attest first-hand that I haven’t found a better way to grapple with the cultural issues that divide American society today.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.